Zootopia is humorous but drives home a hard message
Disney’s newest animated feature film is darker than expected, but still carries a ray of hope
Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush
Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, and Idris Elba
Animated movies can be fun for adults, but they’re aimed at kids. And at first, Zootopia feels like purely a kid’s movie with a straightforward plot that we’ve seen before: two clashing personalities must come together to save the day. But as the plot shifts, building up to the movie’s core message, you find yourself engaging with it on a level uncommon to a typical kid’s movie. And that’s where the magic happens.
Zootopia tells the story of Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), who becomes the first rabbit cop in a police force full of fierce predator animals and moves to the central sector of the animal city Zootopia. Although at first things don’t seem to be going her way, Judy is still determined to make it as a police officer and, with her job on the line, takes on the task of finding an otter who has gone missing. With few clues, Judy finds herself working together with the con artist fox Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman). Together, they must put aside their differences and combine their strengths to find the missing animal — all before Judy loses her job!
A lot of the plot is centered around tensions between predators and prey (two naturally conflicting groups) and stereotypes. Bunnies are stereotypically cute, defenseless animals; foxes are stereotypically sneaky, selfish, and cunning. But Judy, who may be a cute bunny, also graduated at the top of her class at the police academy. And while Nick is rightfully sneaky and cunning (he is a con artist after all), he is still outsmarted by Judy. If we take out the animated characters and spectacular environment in which they live and look at the overarching message of the story, we see a movie showing that life isn’t defined by stereotypes or by specific relationships that may have been true in the past. It’s a movie about adapting to challenges and coming together to move toward the same goal. And while that may sound sappy, it’s very relevant today and conveyed easily through the use of animated animals.
Disney has made other movies featuring animals as the protagonists, but never one with such a diverse range of animals. Water buffalos, giraffes, lions, sheep, panthers, foxes, bunnies, shrews, sloths, elephants, and one naturalistic (read: nude) yak make up just a small part of the whole list of animals featured in the movie. With hamster office workers, a lion mayor, ice-cream shop owning elephants, and of course, the awesome sloth DMV employees, Zootopia lives up to its motto of “anyone can be anything.”
Having such a diverse cast also means having a varied environment, because clearly all these animals have different needs. Zootopia is split into different sectors (which feel a lot like the boroughs in New York City): the big-city-feeling Savanna Central, the miniature Little Rodentia, the clearly cold Tundratown, and the jungly Rainforest District are but a few. In each sector, Judy and Nick meet a different set of animals that make their journey all the more exciting and challenging. In Little Rodentia, for example, Judy manages to save Fru Fru, a small arctic shrew that saves her from a cold demise later on. In Savanna Central, Judy is introduced to Flash, one of the fastest sloths at the Department of Mammal Vehicles, who helps her track a clue in the case of the missing mammals.
One of the things that shines about this movie is the way they manage to make it enjoyable for both younger and older audiences. For example, there is this great sequence in the Rainforest District involving vines, logs, and a big cat that was reminiscent of Tarzan, one of my favorite childhood movies. Another example, and one of the selling points of the movie, is the humor. While most of the humor is constructed to appeal to children, the movie includes a lot of jokes that only the older viewers will understand. One of the earliest instances is the welcome sign to Bunnyburrow, which features a constantly-spinning population counter to joke that bunnies reproduce like crazy. Other funny references include characters based on pop culture phenomena like The Godfather, Walter White from Breaking Bad, and Snooki from Jersey Shore.